Old Testament Tradition

Book of Job: A Vision of God

Michel A Rizzotti

The Book of Job tells the story of an upright man whose integrity is put to the test. The hero is chastised and tormented for no apparent reason. All along, he insists on his innocence and pleads for justice. Job is temporarily alienated from his God and undertakes a journey into the profane where he is totally segregated from the world. But before he is finally restored to a greater glory, he becomes the outcast of outcasts. He is the innocent victim repudiated by the whole society. The narrative is an excursion into the unknown. It discloses a revelation of God.

the setting………. the land of Uz
the hero…………..Job
the quest………….justice
the obstacle……..Satan
the mentor……….Job’s integrity
the outcome……..a vision of God

The “Book of Job” is called Iyyov in Hebrew. The etymology of the word may have meant originally “enemy”, while a similar Arabic root signifies “the penitent”. The form and themes of the narrative are closely similar to the Babylonian wisdom writings of the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” -XIVth century BC-. The “Acrostic Dialogue on Theodicy” -IXth century BC-. It also bears some resemblance to the Egyptian texts called “The Complaints of the Eloquent Peasant” and “Dialogue of the Man Weary of his Life and Soul”, both written between the XXth and the XVIIIth century BC. The author is unknown. The date of the book is uncertain, but popular consensus points to dates ranging between 600-400 BC. Job is a man from the land of Uz, a place somewhere at the edge of the desert, in the south-eastern parts of the Dead Sea; probably a city of ancient Edom.

The central theme of the narrative is set on the theological debate about God’s divine right not to justify his actions to “man”. His authority is enough of a prerogative to sanction any of his deeds. And, no matter how unjust his actions may appear, they should not be questioned by man since God is God.

Job is not an Israelite; he is depicted in the narrative as a foreigner. His life is described as being exemplar. We might say that he is a perfect mythical model:

Job 1:8 “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth…”

His life is blessed with numerous children, and he is surrounded by many loyal servants. His wealth is measurably abundant with cattle.

Job 1:3 …this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

Nevertheless, Job is unaware that in the highest courts his integrity is being questioned and his livelihood is at stake.

One day, the sons of God appear at His court accompanied by a stranger. Curious about the newcomer, God asks him of his whereabouts. Satan, without being specific, replies that he roamed the earth. God must have presumed the intruder wise since he questions him about Job’s righteousness. Satan’s response is that Job has no merit for his probity since he has been favored by the Lord’s grace. God, to prove Satan’s allegations wrong, allows Job to be put to a test. As a result, Job loses his wealth and his children die. Job is distraught, but he remains loyal to his God. His character remains intact. Unfortunately, Satan does not give up. He returns a second time and insists that Job will curse God’s name if he takes his good health away. Again, the Lord allows the fiend to inflict a terrible disease on Job:

Job 2:7…loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.

Overtaken by his affliction, Job admits having sinned in his life but proclaims that his punishment is outrageously disproportionate to his offense. Despite the calamities that befall him, he refuses to curse his God. He even remains steadfast against his wife’s incessant plea to damn his creator for his unjust treatment. Despite all, Job remains true to his Lord. But when a group of his friends come to deplore his condition, Job’s willpower begins to falter. He finally curses the day that he was born. The long series of dialogues and lamentations begin. His friends, instead of lending their support, condemn him. They maintain that he must be guilty to deserve such a fate, since God is just.

Before his ordeal, Job was living content unaware that God was willing to forsake him in order to test his integrity. As the calamities befall him one after the other, our hero cries for justice, unaware of what his dreadful experience is about to reveal.

Contrary to Genesis, where the serpent entices the woman to challenge God’s command, the narrative presents Satan as the one who defies the Lord to test Job’s integrity. Satan is presented as a symbol of wisdom, since he has roamed the earth, and God is curious to know his opinion about his prized servant. Nothing is said about the alien except that he is not one of God’s sons. Etymologically, the word Satan in Hebrew means adversary. It is synonymous with accuser or prosecutor (1). It also entails one who takes up an antagonistic position against somebody; ie, an enemy (2). What follows is perplexing. God forsakes his favorite servant at the suggestion made by a stranger. As a result, Job becomes a scapegoat of God’s inscrutable design.

As the afflictions haunt our hero, everybody, from the highest rank to the lowest cast, begins to avoid and shun him. Plagued by a horrible disease and bad breath, his wife also finds him repulsive. Even his servants treat him as a stranger. Children everywhere despise him. His intimate friends abhor him. He is even reviled by the outcasts of the community. He is singled out as a scapegoat and totally excluded from society. God’s favorite servant has become a pariah rejected by the whole community.

His friends, instead of consoling him, ask him to repent for his sins, since God rewards the just and punishes the guilty. Therefore, Job should repent.

Such is the subject of all the dialogues between Job and his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. They symbolize the “order” in society. They, like Job before his downfall, are all representatives of the hierarchy, they are delegates of the status quo. They rally to God’s side to preserve the order of which they are a part. They hold on to the belief that God rewards the righteous by giving him wealth and power, alternatively punishing the sinner by taking away his riches and making him an outcast. God is an ally of the strong. He selects the upright and blameless and segregates the offender.

Their biggest fear, it seems, is that the hero’s downfall might portend their own demise if they don’t sanction God’s condemnation. Therefore, like a contagious disease, he must be quarantined. As a result, the process of collective victimization begins. It is focused on a sole victim: the scapegoat. As they all rally to God’s decision, Job is singled out to safeguard against the divine wrath. The ostracism becomes in effect a “violent” process of social segregation. Not only Job’s friends but all the members of the community behave in a “mimical” fashion. They aggregate into a dynamic entity -a “mob”- whose sole purpose is to foment a consensus against their chosen victim and exclude him from their ranks. Job is chosen precisely as the scapegoat for an ultimate purpose: to defend the order and hierarchy of society which the victim is believed to be threatening. (3)

Yet it is the complete exclusion from society that enables Job to experience his revelation. It allows him to perceive the whole reality of God and of the community from which he becomes excluded. Because he is segregated, he sees social reality as an outsider. He perceives the whole structure of the society from without.

As the hero finally survives his ordeal, he is reinstated with greater power and glory than he previously had. The mythological significance disclosed in the account is central: the dynamic interaction between the hero, as an individual, and God and society becomes the foundation of the revelation. (4) It goes without saying that the journey is an arduous one. Similar, in some respects, to Israel’s experience in the desert: a trek into the unknown. And although Satan is depicted as the obstacle, he nevertheless plays a primordial part in the development of the hero’s apperception of God.


Even though the process of victimization is painful for Job, it is necessary in order for him to see God. To this effect the mentor is Job’s integrity itself. His trial shows how his personal righteousness is essential to the final outcome. It enables him to transcend his perception of God’s reality. Job’s wisdom allows him to recognize that his personal rectitude is not justifiable in the face of God. God’s authority, albeit a questionable one, is still a divine prerogative. God has a theological precedence over humans, and Job is no exception no matter how righteous he is.

The text describes him as “blameless” and “upright”, he fears God and turns away from evil. His integrity, however, does not imply that he is sinless. His uprightness is used in the sense of his perfect integration into the community and with the environment rather than his being without sin. Furthermore, Job’s integrity implies that his personality is whole and that he is at peace with himself and with his community. His relationships are of the “right” kind with his family, and with his God. This righteousness translates itself into peace –shalom– and well being.

This quality is in turn transmitted to his progeny. His sense of responsibility is such that he even performs atonement for his sons in anticipation that they might commit blasphemy. Job’s piety is only matched by his virtue. In the Book of Job, adversity meets integrity head on and integrity is not subdued.


We have already outlined that the denouement is revealed in terms of a vision of God. The journey reveals what is at the core of the religious experience. (5)

The focal point in any definition of religion revolves around the nature and function of the sacred. It is the matrix of any religious phenomenon whatever its cultural or historical origin. Emile Durkheim showed the importance of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane.(6) The sacred generates a field of belief unto itself which is best defined in terms of conviction. Nothing in particular is sacred yet anything can be sacred. It all depends on the historical or the spatio-temporal circumstances under which a certain phenomenon becomes sacrosanct. That is what is referred to as a hierophany: namely, when the sacred manifests itself in history as typified by Yahweh and the burning bush. And when the sacred appears, it automatically imposes an arbitrary distance to the profane, which it opposes.

sacred vs profane

“holy ground” vs the common ground

Yahweh vs the other gods

the center vs the outside

Normally, God is the Holy One. Yet, in the narrative, he shares his sacredness with his favorite servant. As Satan explains,

Job 1:10 “Have you not put a hedge around him…on every side?”

In other words, Job has been overwhelmingly protected and favored by God. He has been put at the center of God’s holy embrace. The sacred claims the supremacy of attention. It also attempts to circumscribe a reality, more precisely, an identity. And this identity is maintained by its opposition to the profane. The sacred is by definition that which is distinct from the profane. However, the profane is a religious reality necessary to the sacred, since the sacred is sacred precisely because of its opposition to the profane. Satan, as the adversary, illustrates very well what we mean. Satan is Satan because he instigates the conflict between God and Job. He separates the holy union between the lord and his servant, propelling Job into the realm of the profane where he is excluded from everything.

The following illustrates how the profane plays a critical role in the edification of the sacred:

holy/sacred vs common/profane

Moses/Israel vs Pharaoh/Egypt

Yahweh vs the other gods

As noted by Mircea Eliade, the dynamic relation between the sacred and the profane demonstrates that anything can be consecrated.(6) It is not specific persons or things that have sacred values per se, it is because they are recognized as such at some crucial moment in time. The epiphany of the burning bush, for instance, has been consecrated by the narrative as the ultimate revelation of Yahweh and has been acknowledged as such by the people of Israel. The sacred always imposes a separation and a distance between its center, depicted as holy, and the profane, located outside its periphery. Hence, the profane, which lies beyond the consecrated field, is depicted as the excluded and the alien. The dichotomy between these two principles is an essential one. Just think of the division between:

sacred vs profane

God/good vs Satan/evil

Jews vs gentiles

Christians vs the heathen/pagan

Muslims vs the infidels

Furthermore, all religious creeds underline an opposition to the outside world defined as the profane. Our world is meaningful, while the other world is chaotic and mostly inhabited with strangers also described as demons.(7) As outlined in the Book of Job, Satan is a foreigner and an alien.

Literally the word profane means “that which is outside the temple”. The profane refers to whatever lies beyond the boundaries of the sacred. This explains why the profane is never cited in clear terms. By definition, the outside world is always other: a blurred reality always inhabited by unknown and strange beings. As such, it is perceived as a threat to the vivid reality of the sacred to which we identify. Yet this other reality is threatening precisely because it presents an-other sacred reality of its own that challenges the exclusivity of our beliefs. In other words, this other reality defies the foundation of the exclusive validity of our sacred beliefs. Therefore, our beliefs are defined as sacred and are opposed to other beliefs described as alien which are ruled by other gods. Our mythical cosmos confines us to recognize only our world as sacred and discard the rest as profane.

Religion generates its sacred identity from the myths and rituals that perpetuate the creed regulated by the hierarchy of priests. The closer one is to the “holy”, the greater the sense of sacredness. Hence, the antagonism amplifies the identities of the sacred and the profane. The stronger the opposition the stronger the belief in the sacred.

sacred vs profane

believers vs unbelievers

theists vs atheists

civilized vs primitive

Belief is generated by the dynamic opposition between the two principles. As the Bible shows, the God of the fathers must be protected against the intrusion of other gods that might challenge His supremacy. Therefore, we always acknowledge the sacred validity of our own religious beliefs but deny it to others. This is one of the reasons why the profane is always excluded from the sacred. Because it challenges the foundation of the absolute validity of the sacred and it shatters the conviction in the religious uniqueness of the sacred and its tenets. To protect this supremacy, the sacred precipitates the dynamic opposition to keep the profane at a distance. This is why the essence of faith lies in antagonism:

Gen. 32:28 “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

We find this dichotomy in each and every religion. What is viewed as sacred is opposed to the profane which in turn has a sacred validity of its own. In other words, the sacred seeks to be exclusive while denigrating the profane’s own sacred validity.


Job has been described as “the greatest of all people in the east”, protected by God’s grace and surrounded by his sacred embrace. As the story unfolds, we witness Job’s downfall. Originally at the center of attention, he becomes more and more alienated from God and the community. As he becomes excluded, he is also debased. The hero is singled out as victim and scapegoat. Finally, he is isolated from the very society in which he was a central figure.

As Job loses everything, he is further segregated into the realm of the profane. Formerly at the center of God’s favor, he now stands isolated from everybody, outside of the Lord’s reach. As such, he lives the life of a total outcast. He becomes the prototype of a lord-victim.

Job 3:20 “Why is light given to him that is in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it comes not,
and dig for it more than for hid treasures;”


Closely related to the sacred and the profane is a third concept which is essential to the whole dynamic religious experience. This principle is the wholly other. (8) The term wholly is derived from the word “whole”, meaning entirely, in full, throughout. Used in conjunction with the word other, it becomes a category in which the two distinct entities of the sacred and profane inter-activate and transcend one another.

The dynamic aspect of the wholly other reveals its infinite nature. Its scope is to transcend all cultural and religious boundaries into the all inclusive. The wholly other stems from the antagonism of the sacred and profane reality. It transcends the sacred’s own exclusivity by opening up to the profane into the all inclusive dynamic truth. As we saw, Job lived through both realities: the sacred and the profane. Hence, the wholly other transcends one state of religious reality into another. In other words, it is Job’s transition from the sacred to the profane reality that underlines the fundamental essence of the wholly other. It is his experience of being both included and excluded from the sacred that allows Job to see the whole reality of God: the sacred and the profane. Surprisingly, it is through the profane that Job has a glimpse of the whole and other nature of the divine reality. Step by step, as he moves away from the sacred into the profane, he experiences the all inclusive. His apperception of the whole becomes in effect a revelation of God.

the wholly other

sacred vs profane

The prologue describes a special relationship between God and Job. Similar to Genesis, it is disturbed by the arrival of an alien: the serpent in Genesis, and Satan in Job. As the account reveals, Job is abandoned by God for the sake of the adversary. The special relationship between God and his servant is broken. By the same token an order is broken and Job is precipitated into the unknown.

At the end of the narrative Job is reinstated into God’s favor. God restores everything Job had lost and much more. Job doubles his wealth. Family and friends return. He has many other children. As Job’s innocence is vindicated, he nevertheless submits to the theological premise that God transcends any human prerogative, as he confesses:

Job 42:5 “I knew you then by hearsay;
but now, having seen you with my own eyes,
I retract all I have said
and in dust and ashes I repent.”

In a final remorseful outburst, he recognizes his own mortality and bows to God’s immortality. He yields to God’s eternal prerogative.

To conclude, our hero has temporarily lived the demeaning journey of being excluded from God and community. This profane experience of Job is related to seeing the workings of the hierarchical order of which he was part. Because he belonged to that sacred order, he only temporarily sojourns into the realm of the profane. Time enough to see the “whole” reality of God, and only to reemerge with greater glory. Resulting in the revelation of having “seen” the whole reality of God: the sacred, the profane and the wholly other.

From the same author:
The Risen Lord: On Sovereignty and Tyranny


1 Zech. 3:1-5 and I Chr. 21:1. Paul in Romans 16:20, equates the serpent of Genesis to the Satan of Job. The reptile, symbol of the Goddess and fertility in the creation myth, is held responsible in Job for the alienation between God and “man”.
2 The Arabic verb for “Shatana” also means “to be remote”, especially from the truth of God.
3 See Rene Girard, Job: the Victim of his People, London, Athlone Press, 1967, and his other work, The Scapegoat, Chicago, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. See also the interesting analysis made by Dabrowski Kazimierz about desintegration, in, Positive Desintegration, Boston, Little, Brown, 1964.
4 As Rene Girard puts it “religion is in itself culture” Ibid. Job, 152.
5 This experience is recounted in myth, yet it is only an expression of the experience, and it must be differentiated from the religious experience itself, which is unique and unfathomable and cannot be properly described in words because they convey only a glimpse of the religious experience. Consequently, we can only rely on the language that relates that experience.
6 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York, Free Press, 1965 and Rudolf Otto, in, The Idea of the Holy, London, Oxford University Press, 1958.
7 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, New York, Harper & Row, 1959.
8 Roger Caillois, L’Homme et le Sacre, Paris, Gallimard, 1939, 35-59.
9 Rudolph Otto, Ibid, 25.

Exodus: God’s Presence in the Desert

Michael Rizzotti

Genesis, the first book of the Bible, does not limit itself to the creation narrative. Adam and Eve go on to have children, among them, Cain and Abel. In some respect they typify the consequence of the fall: the evil and the good.

The story of the two brothers is a further allusion to God’s preference for herdsman-ship over agriculture. Cain’s fruit offering is disregarded by God who looked favorably upon Abel’s flock offering. As we know, this arouses Cain’s jealousy and causes the killing of Abel.

The text goes on with the patriarchal genealogy of the first couple’s descendants.

As the generations of men multiply on earth, it saddens God to see that they are all wicked and evil. As a result, he decides to destroy humankind in a flood. But among the corrupt God finds favor with Noah. He tells him to build an ark in order to save his family and the animals of the earth.

Soon after the flood life begins anew. The narrative goes on with the enumeration of Noah’s descendants. Meanwhile, the epic of the Patriarchs unfolds. Among the principal heroes are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The narrative depicts successively their own unique relationship with their God.

The saga depicted in Genesis ends with the people of Israel’s move to Egypt to escape the famine that ravaged their lands. A fortunate turn of events allows them to be invited to Egypt by Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold as a slave to an Egyptian by his jealous brothers. Because of Joseph’s uncanny ability to interpret dreams, he had soon been noticed by the Egyptian court and was promoted to a prestigious position among their ranks.

But before we begin with the epic of Exodus, Genesis inaugurates three important Old Testament themes:

Abraham………..God’s promise and alliance

Isaac…………..….the spared sacrifice

Jacob………….….the struggle with the angel of God; i.e. Israel

These themes are but a prelude to what is the centerpiece of the Pentateuch: Exodus.


Exodus is a unique and invaluable account that discloses the birth of a religion. Everything evolves around the significant experience of the people in the wilderness. In many ways Genesis, which precedes it, simply acts as an introduction to the important excursion of the people of Israel.

The flight out of Egypt and the revelation of Yahweh in the desert are the fundamental points which reveal Israel’s origin and identity. The fashion and context in which the journey took place is a remarkable trait that discloses its essence: Moses typifies the semi-nomadic and tribal experience of the “fathers”.

The people’s isolation in the desert and the transient quality of the journey toward the promised land did not favor the development of a stable culture usually associated with agriculture and the fertility cults. In other words, the unique experience of Israel was a product of its isolation which also gave birth to the exclusive and jealous nature of Yahweh. Being secluded from other gods and cultures favored the unique cult of a single and exclusive God. What followed that experience favored the fierce opposition to other gods.

The identity of Israel is, in a sense, closely related to the idea of flight, movement, and seclusion. The isolation of the desert was providential to its historical development where the three entities identified as Moses, Yahweh, and Israel came together in a fateful fashion.


Several generations of Hebrews had lived in Egypt since the time of their first arrival. These “people” now felt less and less welcomed in their adoptive land. Their lives were increasingly threatened by oppressive conditions imposed by the Pharaoh.

Among the Egyptians the Hebrews were a people without a leader. Moses, it turns out, was a prince without a kingdom. When he is told by God of his destiny on Mount Sinai the revelation links the leader to the people. He saw the apparition and heard God’s voice revealing to him the oath he made to the Fathers before him.

Israel’s identity as a people and as a covenant, and as a nation is recreated with that revelation. The exodus in the desert further consolidates that identity. Apart and away from the other gods and other cultures living in Egypt, the setting is favorable for Yahweh to inaugurate a new bond. Yahweh characteristically describes himself as a jealous God, he is unconditionally opposed to other gods. As the story shows, the wilderness is an ideal place to forge such an alliance.

The introduction begins with the description of Moses’ birth. But the epic soon shifts to the hierophany. God reveals his presence by the burning bush and the sound of his voice. The encounter takes place on Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb. According to the traditional lore of the time, the site was, significantly enough, referred to as the “Mountain of God” or the “Mountain of the gods”. The sacred place was known locally as an area where mysterious phenomena often occurred. It was commonly believed that divine beings lived there. Coincidentally, the place could not have been more appropriate for Moses’ spiritual initiation.

the setting…………Egypt and the wilderness

the hero……………Moses

the quest………….the “promise”

the obstacle………the Pharaoh and other gods

the mentor………..Yahweh

the outcome………the ten commandments; Israel


The setting underscores the geographical and historical context that led to the exodus. It is an underlying factor in the plot. The spatio-temporal circumstances for Exodus rely on the departure out of Egypt and the movement toward the quest for the promised land.

Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch. These books are also referred to as the Torah orTanakh, also known as the Instructions. Early Jewish and Christian traditions believed Moses to be the author of these texts, but biblical scholars discovered that Exodus is not the work of one author but rather a compilation of at least four literary sources known as the Yahwist -J, the Elohist -E, the Priestly writer -P, and the Redactor -R. As we have mentioned already, these sources were put together into one narrative by a single editor identified as the Redactor. 2 We will come back to this mysterious editor later.

According to biblical accounts Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, one of the many tribes that lived in Egypt. These people were also called the Hebrews. The name Hebrew has many etymological origins, and none of them certain. It may have been derived from the word Habiru, a variant of Hapiru or Apiru, which was a designation for a class of people who made their living by offering themselves as hired help. According to biblical tradition, the Israelites had been in Egypt for numerous generations and had become a threat to the Pharaohs because of their ever growing population. 3

In addition to the Hebrews, there were a great number of slaves from different countries who were brought in as prisoners of war and lived all over Egypt to serve in different capacities. Many became free persons within the Egyptian society and several were found at various levels of rank in the Egyptian court.

Many of these “foreigners” immigrated to Egypt because of its prosperity. As in the case of the Hebrews, some fled the recurrent famines in their own countries. The overwhelming ethnical diversity did cause some problems. One document, The Admonitions of Ipuwer, conveys the distress felt by the Egyptians by the presence of an increasing number of aliens:

Foreigners have become people everywhere…Robbery is everywhere…the desert is [spread] throughout the land…Barbarians from outside have come to Egypt…4

The great number and diversity of these cultures were matched by their respective religious beliefs. Historically though, the Egyptians had been very tolerant of different cults and other gods.

There is little archaeological evidence that corroborates the facts described in Exodus. The Pharaoh in the account, for instance, is not identified. However, we know that the drafting of foreign labor began with the reign of queen Hatshepsut and her son Thutmose III. The forced labor was later continued by Seti I and Ramses II, circa 1300-1225 BCE. It is possible that the Hebrews were drafted in large number into forced labor for the building of fortified cities on the north-eastern frontier of Egypt. This part of history is nevertheless filled with conjecture. Yet there is one chronicle that depicts the Hebrews suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. The text can be found on the great Rekhmire’s tomb who was Thutmose III’s vizier. It describes how the Egyptians,

…treated their Israelite slave with ruthless severity…setting them to work on clay and brick-making.5

However, the most quoted evidence of the existence of the Hebrews in Egypt is the inscription on a Merneptah stele which reads:

Israel is desolate, it has no seed left.6

As for the period in which the exodus took place, most scholars today support the dating to be around the thirteenth century BCE.

Before the exodus the Hebrews, like many other semi-nomadic tribes, had come to Egypt to escape the famine that ravaged their lands. From the time of their arrival in Egypt to the time of their departure the conditions of their lives changed; presumably because of shifts in the policies of the Egyptian monarchy.

From a predominantly agricultural and mercantile society Egypt emerged into a more aggressive militaristic power. The victory over the Hyksos marked the coming to power of a great new dynasty: the Eighteenth. With its fortunes of war Egypt entered a new phase in its history. And the New Kingdom, spanning from 1550 to 1307 BCE, is in all probability the setting for Exodus.7


There is still a lot of debate about the historicity of Moses. There is no clear archaeological evidence proving his existence. Despite this, we cannot deny a “truth of faith” about his character.8 We cannot dispel either the importance that Moses had on the history of Israel and the development of Jufaism in general.

Curiously, the hero has an Egyptianized name which has a twofold etymological origin. On one hand, the name Moses is derived from the Egyptian verb msy which means “is born” or “to give birth”. The expression could be found in names like Thut-mose, meaning “Thoth is Born”, and also in Ramses or Re-mose, which means “Re is born”. On the other hand, the Hebrew etymology for Moshe, associated in Ex. 2:10 with mashah, means “drawn out of the water”. These two etymological origins bear the dual nature of Moses’ ethnical background which is an intrinsic part of his identity.9

Acts 7:22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

The narrative begins when Moses’ life is providentially saved from the Pharaoh’s command to “cast” all the Hebrew newborn males “into the Nile”. The Hebrew women had become so fertile that their growing number was viewed as a threat. In order to save Moses from the hands of the infanticide ruler, Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, hid their child for three months. When they could not conceal him any longer, his mother put him in a watertight reed basket and set him afloat on the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter, while bathing in the river nearby, found the child and recognized him as one of the Hebrew children. Meanwhile, Moses’ sister watched her brother’s safe destination. She then approached the princess and proposed to let a Hebrew woman nurse the child. Arrangements were made for Moses’ mother to nurture the child until he was grown, and then he would be returned to the Pharaoh’s daughter.

Mose = Moshe

“is born” = “draw out of the water” Egyptian princess’ adoptive son ~ Hebrew mother

In the course of his life fateful events would confirm Moses’ identity. A determinant episode describes the hero’s killing of an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. As a result, he identified with the plight of his people. But because of his action Moses feared the wrath of the Pharaoh who had heard of the murder, and fled to the Midian desert. His deed made him an outcast of the Egyptian society and he was unable to return until the Pharaoh’s death.

While he was in the desert he came across a group of women who brought their flock to water at a well. They were the seven daughters of a local tribal priest. As several shepherds attempted to chase them away he came to their rescue. When their father found out about the Egyptian’s conduct he invited him to share a meal. The dinner apparently went well since the father gave his daughter Zipporah in marriage to Moses. Jethro, the father-in-law, was a Kenite,10 a tribe reputed for having priests and scribes among its members.

Moses’ marriage into the Kenites would prove beneficial for his mission. Priests, particularly scribes, had important roles in royal courts, especially in dealing with the commercial and legal matters of growing tribes and large kingdoms. In that era, the art of writing was closely associated with the scribal and priestly office. Their functions may be compared to the role that accountants play in our society today. These scribes held the highest offices and were part of a privileged caste in the king’s court. The knowledge of their craft was closely kept in the family from generation to generation. They acted as clerks who kept records of finances and took inventories of livestock and goods. Rulers depended on them to account for their wealth. In that function they were held in high esteem. In Egypt, scribes were even divinized. Among the first to be honored was Imhotep who was a minister and an architect.11

Scribes were legal experts as well. They kept records of alliances and tribal agreements between the sovereigns and their vassals. They performed tasks similar to what lawyers do today. Consequently, the scribes were critical to any potential leader. In these circumstances, Moses’ marriage into the Kenites was useful. The priests and scribes of his adopted tribe would be invaluable during the exodus. They helped to consolidate the religious, social, legal, and economical activities of the “people” of Israel. The revelation and then the application of the ten commandments are a perfect example of how the association between the priests and Moses turned out to be essential for the collective management of Israel.


Until his marriage the hero lived the life of an outcast. But soon, God would call him out of the burning bush to reveal his identity and tell him of his destiny. The primordial encounter establishes the foundation of a triune relationship between Yahweh, Moses, and Israel; ie, God, the leader, and the people.

Ex. 3:8 “…and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

Although there is no special term for the word “promise” in the Old Testament, the idea is conveyed by a various range of Hebrew expressions, among them are “speak”, “speech”, “say”, and “swear”. Because Yahweh is regarded as the faithful one, His word is enough to guarantee the fulfillment of the promise.

The principal term used in Hebrew for land is ‘eres. It is the fourth most used term in the Old Testament. As far as theological interpretation goes, the concepts of land and the covenant are so closely connected that it is almost impossible to describe one without talking about the other. The land is described as Yahweh’s gift, which he first promised to Noah, and then to Abraham and his descendants.

Israel was chosen by Yahweh to be his “people for his own possession”.12 The word possession is used in the same manner in which God owns the land. When Yahweh refers to his people he refers to them in terms of his property. Herein, the term is used to describe Yahweh’s “special” possession of his people in the sense of an acquired property.

The concept of the promised land is described in terms of alliance between Yahweh and Israel. The emphasis is laid on the closeness of the relationship between God and his people. God is the owner of the land in the same fashion that he owns his people. And Israel’s possession of the land depends on her faithfulness to God. Yahweh as the land-lord allows the possession of the land by his people only if they remain faithful to his word.

Lev. 25:23 “The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.”


In the thematic sequence we have identified the Pharaoh as the obstacle that is also closely connected to the gods of Egypt.

Once out of Egypt the Hebrews were free to be Yahweh’s chosen people. The narrative goes on to recount the tribulations of their journey in the desert. A particularly crucial episode is described through Moses’ outburst of anger when he saw the idolatry of the people as he came down from the presence of God on Mount Sinai. At the sight of the idol, Moses threw and broke the tables of the ten commandments upon the molten calf. This incident typifies his determination to keep Yahweh’s cult free from any foreign influence. This is especially true in the case of the worship of the golden calf. The underlying antagonism is fundamental to the whole biblical narrative. This theme may be the key to understanding why monotheism has supplanted all other forms of worship.

Ex. 32:8 “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

According to the excerpt above, the golden bull-calf is linked to Egypt. But according to E who wrote this account, the molten calf relates to a specific episode of heresy that flourished in the cities of Dan and Beth-El in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam to whom E was opposed.

Soon after King Solomon died, the northern kingdom of Israel, under the reign of Jeroboam, seceded from the southern territory of Judah. The division occurred primarily as a result of the unpopular policies of missim: a burdensome tax paid in the form of forced labor. Instead of appointing the hereditary priest whose lineage traced back to Moses to the temples in Dan and Beth-El, Jeroboam nominated his own officials for ceremonies related to the golden calf.

But for the great number of Canaanites of the time, the golden bull-calf was the visible manifestation of the animal associated with the fertility cult and the goddess Asherah.

It may be that it is from this heresy that the whole antagonism to the molten image stems. Especially in connection with the Canaanite worship of Asherah. The golden calf is also associated by tradition to Baal and her companion Baalat, which could be translated into “lord” or “owner”, and “owneress”. These cults were popular among the Canaanites living under the reign of King Jeroboam. E, who wrote this passage, in all probability lived during the time when these events took place.13 The account reveals his outrage at Jeroboam for not having appointed a legal priestly heir to the temple to which priestly order E most likely belonged himself.

This is one interpretation of the event. The narrative, however, links the worship of the molten calf to Egypt.

If we go along with the story and believe that the golden calf really originated in Egypt, then we might try to find parallels of the golden calf in Egyptian religion.

Several scholars believe that Ramses II and his son Menerptah were the probable oppressors of the Hebrew people.14 When Ramses II made peace with the Hittites following the disastrous battle of Kadesh, a great number of deities such as Anat, Astarte, and Asherah became popular in Egypt. Archaeological findings show that the Canaanite gods, particularly the goddesses, had an extraordinary fluidity in taking the shapes, forms, and names of other deities.15 This is especially the case in warfare and conquest where acculturation becomes widespread among the different cultures and the divinities assume the identity of other gods. This is the case in regards to the Canaanite goddesses Asherah, or Astarte, and her Near Eastern counterpart Anath.

There were numerous bull cults in ancient Egypt, most of them minor divinities. Among them were, the black Apis Bull, the white Min Bull, a symbol of virility, and Mont-Re. But none of these cults was more important than the one portrayed by the cow-goddess. This divinity was found in a very early stage of Egyptian religion and became prevalent throughout Egypt. The most famous cow-goddess was Hathor. One of the more popular goddesses in Egypt, Hathor was a sky-goddess and a symbol of fertility. As the sky-goddess, she was the Eye of the Sun god Re. In that quality, she personified the sky. She was known as the Beautiful One and the Golden One; the joyous goddess of love, music, and happiness. Gold was her sacred metal and Hathor was described as the “Gold of the Gods”. She was also called “the Lady of the Sycamore”. Hathor was especially popular among women. She incarnated the principles of beauty, love, and fertility. As such, she typified the Mother Goddess. Hathor was especially concerned with birth and babies. As a “cow” she suckled the baby kings and protected them through childhood. Her protection even extended to kings in their old age. Throughout Egyptian history, the Golden One remained a very popular goddess.16

There are some striking similarities between the golden calf from Exodus and the Golden One, the goddess of fertility. In addition, the reference in the text to the “play” and the “sound of singing” among the worshipers when Moses came down from Mount Sinai points to an additional likeness between the two deities. Hathor was the bringer of happiness, and the goddess of music and love.

The “molten calf”, however, was dealt a hard blow by Moses. Yahweh is indeed a jealous God. He allows no other God but himself. Following Moses’ destruction of the idol, the worshipers who did not repent were all killed by the faithful Levite priests. Loyal to their functions, they made sure the worship of the forbidden image would be completely eradicated.

Ex 20: 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…for I the lord your God am a jealous God…”


The narrative is particularly explicit about Moses’ inquiry of God’s identity. The name that is revealed to Moses, Yahweh -YHWH in the un-vocalized Hebrew- is so sacred in Jewish tradition that it is not pronounced; instead, God, Adonai, El Shaddai, or the lord is regularly substituted for it.

Ex. 3:14 “I am who I am”


As Martin Buber points out, God’s name is not meant to be esoteric.17 It is not made to avoid any question about God’s identity or to withhold any information about his being. Instead, the twofold ehyeh -I am- implies God’s presence and closeness with whom He has chosen to be. In fact, Yahweh is so close to Moses that he is his “mouth”:

Ex. 4:12 “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

Furthermore, as we have already seen in the first verses of Genesis, God is once again an individuum vaguum, the image-less voice speaking out of nowhere. Yahweh’s revelation to Moses is also meant to be a sign or a visible expression of God’s presence. When Yahweh asks Moses to say to the people of Israel: “I am has sent me to you”, God literally implies his overwhelming presence in Moses. His mouth is Yahweh’s mouth. Moses is the sign sent by Yahweh.

Ex. 3:12 He said, “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you:”

Therefore, the essence of the name of God becomes in effect secondary, since the name merely underlines God’s presence; the God of the Fathers is present with Moses as he was present with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yahweh is present with Moses as the historical manifestation of God’s promise he made to the Patriarchs and to His people. God’s revelation to Moses is made in order to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.

The “I am who I am” becomes clearer in conjunction with Moses’ realization of his identity as God’s spokesman. He is the historical manifestation of Yahweh’s promise made to Israel. The same promise he made to Abraham is related to Moses; yet according to Yahweh, it is the first time his name has been revealed.

Yahweh is Moses’ mentor. Moses is chosen by Yahweh to embody the verbal promise. However, Moses needs additional help in his mission. Aaron, his brother, becomes the heroes’ spokesman in his dealings with the Pharaoh. In the text God commands Moses to “Say to Aaron”.18 The reason being that Moses, who has some kind of speech impediment and may have been a stammerer, is inflicted with such a dread to speak to the Pharaoh that he refuses to obey God’s command. He argues stubbornly with God and arouses his anger. Yahweh finally agrees to let Moses’ brother be his spokesman. Aaron, in effect, becomes Moses’ mouth in the same fashion that Moses is Yahweh’s mouth.

Further help is needed for the favorable outcome and the final release of the people from Egypt. The plagues are an additional and necessary force to convince the Pharaoh of God’s will. Yahweh uses the plagues as a powerful sign to break the ruler’s obstinacy. One at a time, the plagues are announced by Moses through Aaron. The account of the plagues are for the most part ornamental. They symbolize Yahweh’s control over nature, since Moses does not have the Pharaoh’s military might.19


The outcome of Exodus is profiled by the quest of the promised land. As we will see, what is at issue here is as much the quest underlined by the “promise” as the actual possession of the land itself.20

But as we get closer to the denouement, Moses is faced with a dilemma. He is concerned about the future of the people’s faithfulness to Yahweh. The Israelites, in the course of their exodus, lived a nomadic way of life and the relationship between Yahweh and his people thrived in the desert. The idea of a fixed settlement in Canaan puts an end to those ideal conditions. In the wilderness God took care of his people, guiding them like a shepherd that brings his cattle to grazing lands. There is a certain amount of nostalgia and preoccupation at the end of the journey as to the future of this unique relationship. In the promised land the people would no longer live in the isolation of the desert with one God, as one people, but among foreign cultures and alien gods.

Deut. 7:1 “When the lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir’gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourself, and when the lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe’rim, and burn their graven images with fire.

“For you are a people holy to the lord your God; the lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”

It is paradoxical, in these circumstances, that Moses will never set foot in Canaan, the land he yearned for so long. Only the people of Israel led by Joshua will.

Canaan was populated by natives who worshiped different gods. Unlike in the isolation of the desert, Yahweh would be surrounded by other gods. Among the people living there were the Canaanites who, as we have already outlined, were worshipers of Asherah, the goddess of fertility.

History reveals that the people would eventually intermarry with their Canaanite neighbors and be influenced by the settled and agricultural ways of life associated with fertility cults, despite the evils associated with agriculture and the slavery suffered in Egypt which are vilified in Exodus.21

Once settled in the promised land, Yahweh’s exclusivity was forever threatened. The danger was always present that the people of Israel would forgo and forget their bond with Yahweh. A worrisome and perhaps challenging prospect for God and his prophets. More so, for the scribes and priests who wrote these texts.

The antagonism of Yahweh to any other form of worship is fundamental. Yet it is an underlying principle of many religious experiences and expressions. The greater the opposition to other gods, the closer the relationship with God. The stronger the antagonism between Yahweh and the other cults, the stronger Israel’s religious identity. The stronger the identity, the greater the belief, etc.

The journey out of Egypt is the beginning of Israel as a people and its covenant with God. And the revelation of Yahweh on mount Sinai inaugurates a wholesome relationship between God, his people and the covenant. Although there was no word in biblical times for religion, the beliefs associated with the entity of God, his Kings, priests, prophets, and his people were perceived as one single dynamic reality.

This was made possible by the covenant that Yahweh made with the Patriarchs and, finally, with Moses. What begun in Exodus is promulgated by faith and verified by history, notably in the “story”. For Israel, the self-fulfilling words of God are tied to the faith in the unfolding events of history which are related to Exodus. The covenant sealed the destiny of Israel to the promise. The “ultimate concern” lies in the hope that the exclusive alliance will not fade with time. Attached to the covenant is the unbreakable character of the relationship that is stressed upon Israel in the form of the ten commandments and the law.22

With the law, Exodus inaugurates the legal, the social, and spiritual aspect of Israel as an inseparable reality. Under one God Israel becomes one entity, one identity.

Another paradox is that Yahweh must rely on his people’s obedience as much as they on his guidance. Without his people, Yahweh could not survive, and for that matter he would not exist. Therefore, Israel is the chosen people of Yahweh as much as Yahweh is their chosen God. In other words, the people of Israel have chosen God that has chosen them as the chosen people, and vice versa. This exclusive alliance sets the people apart from other people as much as Yahweh is set apart from other gods.

But in the outcome, the law or the ten words become the ultimate legacy and the monopoly of the priestly hierarchy. The divine ordinances regulate and keep the community together. With the liturgy, the cults, and the rituals, the priesthood becomes the ruling order. In effect, “man” is under the priest’s regulatory supervision for his access to God. The hierarchy of the sacred becomes the medium through which “man” can have access to the holy.

Ex. 19:5 “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Exodus illustrates literally how the story, or the creative power of the word as outlined in Genesis, is the creative agent of Israel’s identity and history. In fact, the historicity of Exodus is not as important as the “truth of faith” that generates the actual belief of its own sacredness.2

* * *

As we have explained, Exodus stems from four different literary sources: E, J, P, and R which were edited by the Redactor. The first three sources were written much later than the actual exodus, most likely between 922 and 608 BC. And the Redactor, in all probability, compiled the texts during the fourth century BC, more than eight centuries after the actual events described in Exodus took place. It would be revealing at this stage, to find out more about this elusive character who is responsible for the compilation of the most important book ever written in Christendom.

If we were to gather all the data available concerning the identity of this obscure and uncelebrated editor, we would probably end up with a portrait that would look a lot like Ezra.

In 587 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and its inhabitants were sent into exile. The city of Jerusalem was devastated and the temple destroyed. Providentially, Babylon was later conquered by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC. He apparently had no religious beliefs of his own and he did not particularly care to impose any creed upon others. He allowed the Jews to return to their land and worship their God. With his assistance, a second temple was built in 515 BC. Not surprisingly, the king was hailed as the right hand of Yahweh and a good shepherd.

Ezra 1:1 The lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.

With the new temple being built, hope was on the rise. Under the new Persian rule, a Jewish exile called Nehemiah was appointed as the civil governor of Jerusalem. He needed additional help in religious matters, so he asked for another official from the Persian courts. This man was Ezra. He was a priest of Aaronid descent who was described as the “Secretary of State for the Jewish Affairs”, and the “scribe of the law of the God in heaven”. The reference of “God in heaven” was a title commonly given to Yahweh by the Persian regime.

Ezra came with a specific goal: to put religious order among the ruins of Jerusalem and I.

He did not come empty handed. He brought with him the copy of an intriguing law-book, which in all likelihood was a copy of the Pentateuch as we know it today. Not surprisingly, Ezra stands out at the end of the Pentateuchal law of the Old Testament in the same fashion as Moses stands at the beginning of it. He was presumably a man of great authority. As such he applied the law scrupulously and with great discipline.

Ezra 7:6 He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the lord the God of Israel had given.

Upon his arrival in Judah, he was struck by the religious heresy of the Jewish people. He soon forbid the common practice of intermarriage between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. He even persuaded already married Jews to divorce their Gentile consorts.

Neh. 9:2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Religious laxity had spread among the Jews during the Babylonian rule. Apathy for their God was adamant. During the exile, numerous communities who were scattered all over the Babylonian empire had turned their back to the scrupulous observances demanded by Yahweh. While the temple of Jerusalem lay in ruins, Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere lost their urge to worship Yahweh as the law demanded. Loin des yeux loin du coeur -far from sight the heart grows distant.

Worse yet the name of Yahweh was freely associated with the goddess Anath, whose identity is closely related to Asherah and Astarte, names that are repeatedly interchanged in the Bible.

The reference to “the queen of heaven” mentioned in the quote below shows how popular the worship of the goddess Asherah had become. When the people were exhorted by the prophet to return exclusively to Yahweh, a group of women retorted:

Jer. 44:16 “As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”

Ezra was understandably outraged to see Yahweh rivaled to hear such profanity. He took upon himself to forcefully inaugurate a temple-state hierocracy.24 He put the temple of Jerusalem back at the center of Jewish practice just as it was before. Patriarchal order was soon restored. The priestly monopoly of the law was reinstated.

Herein lies the background of the Bible.

For ages it was believed that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. Even today some still believe it. It only goes to show what a great job the redactor did when he arranged the different sources together.

What is so amazing is how successfully he put into a single narrative often contradictory accounts. A close scrutiny of the text, however, reveals some important discrepancies between the different sources. In J’s account, for instance, God personally descends on Mount Sinai, while in P’s God does not. In both J’s and E’s Moses sees God, not in P’s. J and E repeatedly describe Yahweh as merciful whereas P never uses the word “mercy”, but describes the lord as the God of justice and anger.

To make matters worse, the different sources challenged each other priestly authority. E backs the Levitical priestly family of Shiloh, and J is a patron of the descendants of Zadok. Whereas, P and R are supporters of the Aaronide lineage who are openly critical of Moses.

Why then, did the Redactor put these contradictory accounts together? Probably because each individual text was considered sacred and popular among the segment of the population from which it emerged.

In addition to his editorial savvy, R was also an astute theologian. By arranging different versions into one single account, he leaves the final authority regarding matters of theological interpretation to the priestly office. No single truth can be asserted. Every aspect can be challenged by a contradictory version. Therefore, any interpretation of the text can always be questioned, leaving the monopoly of authority in matters of faith in the hands of the priesthood.


It is one of the greatest paradox of Exodus that Moses did not set foot on the promised land. Yet this paradox may confirm an underlying principle of religious experience: that the quest is the essence of belief, not the object itself. In other words, it is the expectation and hope rather than the fulfillment of the promise that is the essence of faith. The promised land is the metaphor for the quest.

Another important principle lies in the obstacle to the quest. An underlying opposition to the profane reality of other god(s) and goddess(es) must be enforced in order to maintain the exclusivity of the holy. Concurrently, when God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, he reveals a fundamental tenet of the religious reality:

Gen. 32:28 Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Israel literally means “He who strives with the angel” or “with God” or “God strives”. Hence the very essence of the word Israel lies in the dynamic relationship between God, his commandments (ten words), oneself and the people into wholesome shalom.


1 Mountains are privileged places where the sacred appears. See Martin Buber for the Mountain of God in, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 109.

2 Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, New York, Summit Books, 1987.

3 Martin Buber, Moses, Ibid., 20.

4 Ian Wilson, Exodus, The True Story Behind the Biblical Account, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1985, 56.

5 Ian Wilson, Ibid., 81. Another clue may be the cities of “Pithom” and “Raam’ses”, mentioned in Ex. 1:11, which are known to have been constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Ramses II.

6 F.F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, London, The Paternoster Press, 1963, 13.

7 Ian Wilson, Ibid.

8 Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions, Leiden, Brille, 1967, 21.

9 According to S. Freud, Moses was an Egyptian, see Moses and Monotheism, New York, A.A. Knopf, 1939.

10 He is also called Reu’el in Ex.2:18 and Hobab in Jg.4:11. See also Max Weber for more on the scribes and priests in, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1967, 336-343.

11 Régis Debray, Le Scribe: Genèse du Politique, Paris, Grasset, 1980, 33-36.

12 Deut. 7:6.

13 Ex. 32:1 to 33:1.

14 It is believed that during his long reign -1301 to 1234 bc- Ramses II ordered the construction of numerous temples with colossal statues of gods and of himself. The four deities behind his temple at Abu Simbel show that he was placing himself at the same level as the three dynastic gods of Egypt: Ptah, Re, and Amon. It is during the successive reign of his son Menerptah -1234-27 bc- that we have the famous inscription about Israel: “Israel is desolate; it has no seed left.”

15 William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, 71 f.

16 See, Barbara Watterson, The Gods of Ancient Egypt, New York, Facts On File Publication, 1984.

17 M. Buber, Ibid., 192-195.

18 Ex. 7:19; 8:5; 16.

19 The last plague, the one that finally convinces the Pharaoh to release the Israelites, may have an underlying significance that is of some interest. There is a parallel between the Pharaoh’s killing of the Hebrew male infants in the beginning of the narrative, from which Moses escapes, and the death of all the Egyptian first-born including the ailing Pharaohs’ child (Ex.11:1-12;). The meaning of the last plague can be related to the “blood revenge” of the ancient customs of the Semitic tribes: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24, Deut. 19:21, Mt. 5:38), described in the law of retribution of the Covenant Code. See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, Macmillan Co., Inc, 1967, 61-62.

20 In Hebrew the word for covenant is berith. It has the same significance as bond or agreement. Many social relationships of the time were agreements also known as covenants between Kings.

21 See Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, New York, Basic Books, 1985, 101. Also Deut.11:10.

22 The wilderness period was the constitutional age, the time of Israel’s beginning, the time when God’s commandments were made into law. In Exodus -Ex.34:28, Deut.4:13,10:4- the term “ten words” has been replaced by the more common appellation of the “ten commandments”. The expression “ten words” refers to a group of prescriptions of cultic nature. It is used in the OT to describe a group of divine commandments written down by Yahweh and given to Moses.

23 The most revered and holy place for the Israelites during their exodus was the tabernacle, inside which the ark contained the copy of the sacred tablets containing the ten commandments. Again the legacy of the written “word” remains the most sacred religious reality for posterity, handed down from generation to generation.

24 F.F. Bruce, Ibid., 109

God the Father: The Patriarchal Tradition

Michael A Rizzotti

The oldest biblical divinity is that of God of the Father(s). With this essay we will summarize some of the appellations of God used in the Old Testament.

El, Elohim

One of the oldest Semitic appellatives of God is ‘el.1 The designation has been widely used in ancient Israel and Babylonia. It is also found in the oldest names as a component of: Ishma-el, Bethu-el, and Isra-el. 2 The original meaning of the word ‘el is still uncertain, but a probable origin may stem from the root ‘lh, which conveys the sense of “to be strong and powerful”, “direction”, or even “a sphere of control”. We also find the root alongside the proper name of deities such as: El-Shaddai (God Almighty), El-Elyon (God Most High), and El-Roi (“El sees me”, “God Seeing”).3

Among the most appropriate epithets of El are “Mighty”, “Leader”, or “Governor”. Its most forceful significance was meant to stress an attribute of majesty, with the intent to inspire fear in the face of God’s “mighty” presence.

Another important feature in the Scriptures is the frequent use of the appellative El in connection with the patriarchs’ names. The “God of Abraham” for instance, is the “El of Abraham”, the “Fear of Isaac” is the “El of Isaac”, and the “Mighty One of Jacob” is the “El of Jacob”. The designation was also used to describe the “God of the fathers”; i.e. the “El of the Fathers”.4 This feature indicates a special relation between the deity and the individual leader. The God of the leader became, henceforth, the God of the family and of the tribe. As such it also established a tribal bond between the God and the group.

Gen. 33:18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddanaram; and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elo’he-Israel (that is God, the God of Israel).


Several divinities of the ancient Near East in the second millennium BCE were for the most part assigned to a specific cultic place. The more stable kingdoms living during that period were constantly threatened by wandering nomadic tribes. War was an ongoing reality, especially among the emerging powers seeking to expand their dominion. The survival of the smaller semi-nomadic tribes depended on the initiative of their leader.

The pervasive use of magic in connection to their tribal gods was common as a way to inspire confidence, strength, and protection against rival enemies. The religious life of the group was closely intertwined into the nuclear social structure. Herdsmen, clans, and tribes, most of them semi-nomadic, were constantly in search of new ways to provide for their own subsistence and that of their flock in a harsh environment. The best fertile lands were already occupied by the powerful rulers of the city-states.5

The text of Genesis reveals that the worship of El among the early Hebrew migrant tribes had the same specific function of social cohesion and protection. Consequently, the random contact with other tribes and cultures brought about spontaneous opposition to rival cultic deities which endangered the integrity and cohesion of the group. This is especially the case of El and its opposition to Baal, the warrior storm-god, the King of the Gods.6


Another word commonly used for God in the Old Testament is ‘elohim.7 Etymologically it is connected to El. It is used mostly as an “abstract plural” or a “plural of intensity”. Elohim can best be translated into the Godhead. It is mostly used as a superlative to elevate the rank of the divinity above the pantheon of the other gods. This expression was utilized primarily in Babylonia and in pre-Israelite times to express the unity of individual gods that combined the totality of the higher divine reality. The plural form became recognized as an expression of superiority. In that sense, the narrative uses the plural form of ‘elohim to glorify the God of Sinai as the supreme divinity, and to express the superiority of God -‘elohim- to other gods.

The name Elohim is also an appellation for God which is used to replace the name Yahweh. Among other epithets used in the Bible to replace the unspeakable name of God -YHWH- is Adonai, or the Lord.


El, in all likelihood, is linked etymologically to ilu, a widely popular high-god of ancient Mesopotamia and the most prominent deity in the Canaanite religion. El, which we have identified with the God worshiped by the fathers, was also a prevalent God in Canaan, what was commonly known as Palestine.8

Ex: 6.2 And God said to Moses, “I am the lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God  Almighty, but by my name the lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelt as sojourners.”

P, who wrote the quote above, makes it quite clear that the identity of the gods worshiped by the forefathers are not to be mistaken with Yahweh, who disclosed himself to Moses for the first time. In the text, Yahweh informs Moses that he was known by the forefathers as El Shaddai; i.e., the God Almighty. The account also reveals the whole new reality of Yahweh who links the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and finally to Moses.

Yahweh’s promise links his presence to the enduring existence of his people’s posterity; ie, the descendants. A promise which is revived again and again through the kings and prophets in whom Yahweh chooses to inspire his authority.

Ex. 3:14  God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, `I am has sent me to you.'”

In the quote above J links God’s name with the verb “to be”, or “to exist”.

Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh 9
I am who I am

The significance of the tautology ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, with the emphasis on the redundancy of the verb ehyeh, “to be”, is meant to enforce the idea of vitality and presence. The context in which God speaks, and to whom he speaks, implies an apperception of the divine presence which is linked with the promise made by God to the forefathers.10

The essence of the being of God is portrayed in terms of presence and of relationship. All the attributes are closely related to the twofold relationship between Yahweh and Moses and the realization of the promise to free the people from Egypt.11 The closeness is explained when God says to Moses, “But I will be with you”.12

When God tells Moses to go to the people and tell them that “I am has sent me to you”, he implies that when the hero utters the words “I am”, Moses will assume and ultimately embody God’s divine authority. Yahweh’s personal presence and existence is, shall we say, determined by Moses’ acquiescence of his mission. Yet it is the ongoing quality of the promise that is eternal, not God’s spokesmen. As such, the promise transcends Moses’ historicity.

Individuality is also stressed by the pronoun “I” which can only exist in the act of speaking to others or to oneself.13 Yet the first person singular indicates the presence of the image-less individuum vaguum. In the narrative the “I” exists -or stands out- as an individual being since God’s words are audible and comprehensible to the hero even though God’s reality is image-less. As God introduces himself, a distance is set between Yahweh and Moses. The alienation stems from the mystery of the distant promise that God had made to the forefathers. But as soon as Moses realizes the scope of his destiny, the hero finally understands the message and goal of the revelation. Then, the separation narrows. As Moses accepts God’s mission, he eventually identifies with the promise. More so when Yahweh reassures Moses that he will be with him and that his mouth will be God’s mouth. At the outset, Yahweh is an wholly other alterity to Moses yet he becomes one with God and wholly other entirety with the acceptance of his mission and the covenant.


Although God forbids the use of any graven images to portray or to identify him, the text is full of metaphors to suggest that his identity is accessible to us:

Ex. 33:11 “Thus the lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”.

God here is depicted as a friend, and the intimacy of the relationship is further symbolized by its anthropomorphic and metaphorical nature.

Throughout the Bible, the narrative uses the anthropomorphic to reveal God.

Gen.    1:3       > God speaks
Gen.    1:26     > God created man in his image
Gen.    3:8       > God walks in the garden
Gen.    32:24   > God wrestles with Jacob
Exod.  15:8      > God has a nose
Deut.   11:12    > God has eyes
1 Sam. 8:21     > God has ears
Ps.       2:4       > God laughs
Isa.      42:14    > God pants and groans

We have seen in Genesis how God speaks to the world. He speaks to his prophets, to his people and to the reader/hearer. This ability to communicate is essential in order for his will to be known.

God was present in the beginning. He was present with Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Moses. God is always present in his promise. Therefore, God transcends the personal relationship to encompass the people and their progeny in order that the promise be safeguarded.

The historical: Yahweh is the God of the Patriarchs, of Moses, of the anointed Kings, of the Prophets, and the priests etc…

The eternal:  God’s promise to his people from which he chooses his spokesman


1 The term Semitic is used here to represent the family of languages of which Hebrew, Aramaic, Ethiopic and ancient Assyrian are a part.
2 Ilumma-ila and Ibni-ilu, in Babylonia; IlL-awwas and Jasma`-ilu in Southern Arabia.
3 El-Shaddai (Gen. 17:1); El-Elyon (Gen. 14:18f); and El-Roi (Gen. 22:14).
4 El of Abraham (Gen. 31:53); El of Isaac (Gen. 31:42); El of Jacob (Gen. 49:24).
5 See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1952.
6 See M. Weber, Ibid., 154. Also Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, 1969, 180, Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, London, Oliver and Boyd, 1965, and Edmond Jacob, Old testament Theology, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1955, 56.
7 Gen.1: 26; 20:13; etc.
8 Ronald E. Clements, The God of Israel, Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1979, 64.
9 Torah, Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982, Ex. 3:14.
10 One interesting hypothesis on the origin of YHWH -called the tetragrammaton- relates to an extension of the prehistoric word hu rendered “He”, the god. Another similarity points to the Dervish cry Ya-hu which can be translated into “O He”. The original expression may have been Ya-huva, if the Arabic pronoun huwa is taken to mean “he”. It is possible that the name Ya-huva could have meant “O-He” also. Such an expression could easily have evolved into Yahu and finally Yahweh. It is also interesting to note  the rhetorical character in the original use of the word. M. Buber, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 49f.
11 See Martin Buber, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 192-195.
12 Ex. 3:12.
13 See Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders’, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, San Francisco, North Point Press,  1988, 70f.

Creation and Goddess Symbols in Genesis 1-3

Michael A Rizzotti

The creation narrative of Genesis is similar in certain respects to creation myths that describe the beginning of a new cultural, religious, and cosmological reality.  These accounts show how the divinity uses his word to articulate a new world. The word, and consequently language, is the medium that allows God to communicate to “man” his creation. This spoken aspect of creation can also be found in Egyptian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Persian cosmogonies.1

the setting…………the beginning of the “world”
the hero…………….God
the quest………….. order and meaning
the obstacle……….void, darkness, and chaos
the mentor…………speech and language
the outcome……….the Genesis ─beginning─ of the Bible

The first book of the Bible is appropriately called Genesis, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew in the beginning. As such, it is the introductory setting for the story of the people of Israel as recounted in the first five books of the Bible: namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are also called the Pentateuch and the Torah.

God did not physically write these words. Several unknown priests/scribes did. Extensive biblical studies show that several versions of similar stories were compiled together by a redactor called “R” into one single narrative. His final compilation shows how important his role has been in creating the Bible. He was responsible for putting together into one narrative several versions of often contradictory accounts that, until recently, were believed to have been written by Moses.2

Genesis 1 thru 3, which is the subject of this chapter, is divided according to three sources of composition:

verses 1:1 to 2:3 are accredited to P

verse  2:4a is attributed to R

verses 2:4b to 3:24 are written by J

P refers to the priestly source, who is also the largest contributor to the Pentateuch. He has been given this designation because his accounts are mainly concerned in securing priestly interests. The second source, which is a single phrase, is written by R, the Redactor. This single verse links the two sources into one uniform account of the creation. J, the writer of the second version of the creation of “man”, as well as the fall, is called the Yahwist because in his accounts he refers to God as Yahweh.


Gen. 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

The first paragraph above is more of an introduction to God’s as the subject of His creative activity which really begins with:3

Gen. 1:3 And God said…

God literally uses his speech to create the world. Language is God’s primordial tool. Without it he could not reveal his existence, neither could he describe his creation.

If we make a parallel with the first verses of the Gospel of John we find that the Evangelist also identifies Christ with the Word in the beginning. The example is in itself an important clue to the nature of the “Word” in God’s creative endeavor.4

John. 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

Similar ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and Indian cosmogonies also imply a divine power inherent in the word itself which when uttered brings out order. Numerous ancient myths provide a good example of the likeness of the creative power of the divine word. In ancient Egypt the god Ptah of Memphis, in a comparable fashion, created the world through his spoken word.5 While Sumerian myths describe how divinities first plan their creation by thinking, and then the world comes into being through the power of speech.

Based on the content of the biblical text above, it appears that speech is one of God’s primordial activities.6 Language allows the divinity to reveal his creation to us. We might say that before the first words of Genesis are spoken there is nothingness, and before the order of syntax is put forth there is chaos. The Bible -from the Latin ta biblia which means the little books- is sacred precisely because the God’s inspired words have been recorded, but mostly because they have been preserved for posterity by the Priests and scribes.

Hence, God’s rhetoric describes the beginning of a reality which is the Bible itself. As such, the Bible is foremost a literary creation, albeit a sacred and holy one for the believers.7

The narrative does not explain to whom God speaks, nor from where. God here is an individuum vaguum; i.e., a vague and imageless individual. He nevertheless uses speech, which is a human characteristic. He does so without using the configuration of an individuum certum, in other words, without assuming the identity -or the image- of a person. Consequently, the creative powers of the word supersedes any other human attribute.

Furthermore, the way the narrative reports God’s words is analogous to the way lords or sovereigns dictated their will to the scribes. As the account reveals, the Lord speaks and his will is being transcribed. In this context, the account links the ancient oral tradition to the written.8

Moreover, the biblical Hebrew alphabet is made up primarily of consonants. In the un-vocalized Hebrew alphabet, speech is necessary to give meaning to the un-vocalized words, otherwise the letters are a meaningless and chaotic code. Only with the spoken word are the vowels uttered. By exhaling one’s breath into the letters, the alphabet miraculously takes on a life and Spirit of its own, and words finally become meaningful.

As the text shows, God speaks from nowhere and to nobody in particular. Yet he becomes preoccupied with the order and plan of things to which he is about to give names. He also becomes involved in the separation of the world into a set order of categories; most obvious of which is the division of time into seven days and the classification of his creation by name.9

The name giving activity in creation is not exclusive to the Bible either. It is also prevalent in the ancient Near Eastern mythology where it was seen as an exercise of sovereignty, especially in terms of property and dominion.10

The act of separating and naming reveals another important facet of the divine creative activity. This classification of words and names can be appropriately referred to as a biblical glossary.11 This order becomes in effect a description of God’s identifiable creation; i.e., the inventory of the property to which “man” can “have dominion”. The definition of things and beings is setting the stage for the world of the Bible.

Numerous studies made on primitive classification reveal how this complex display of symbolic representations and relationships is meant to represent the grounds of social organization. A typical example is the system of moieties in tribes of Australia. It is also prevalent in the astronomical, astrological, geomantic, and horoscope divinatory systems of ancient China, of which Taoism is a fine example.

In the 6th day, his last day of activity, God ultimately utters the concept of his most important creation.

Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

God speaks in the first person until verse 26, but as he gets closer to the pinnacle of his creation he finally opts for the plural form. The change is fundamental, especially in view of its underlining message.

The first and obvious sense of “Let us” could be taken as “abstract plural” or “plural of intensity”. In Hebrew, for instance, the word for man –‘adam– also has a collective meaning and may be used here in the sense of “mankind”.

There may be yet another connotation implied by the plurality. Before the people of Israel adopted Yahweh as their only God, they worshiped El, which was also the God of the neighboring Canaanites.

El, which means literally the Lord, shared his title with his consort Asherah. Both had the epithets of the “creator” and the “creatress”. Archaeological findings at Quntillet cAjrud show that not only El, but also Yahweh was associated with a divine consort named Asherah.13


Gen. 2:7 then the lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In Hebrew, the words genesis, beginning, and birth are all synonyms. So are the words Spirit, wind, breath. The first point to pro-creation as the genesis of life itself.

In the narrative God proceeds to mold from the soil ‘adam -man- which is taken from ‘adamah -the ground- and like a potter he molds his creation. Adam finally becomes a living being when God breaths into it the breath of life.

Although in the first account man, the only creation that is able to understand God’s words, is created on the last day, all that was created prior to him was created specifically for him. In chapter two, however, man is the center of attention, everything evolves around him.

In chapter one, the creation is spoken out of chaos and nothingness into an orderly syntax. Whereas in the second version God creates man to put him in the center of a tree garden called Eden. Man is purposefully created by God as a tiller and keeper of his garden. At the outset, the relationship between God and man is established as one of land-lord and keeper. J marks a clear distinction between the sovereignty of God over his garden and man; i.e., the separation between the creator and his creation, between the master and his servant.

Unlike in the former version, God enables man to call and name every living creature; an important role he had kept for himself before. In doing so he allows man to share his divine power of speech and appropriation.

Gardens, particularly fertile fields, were the marked possession of great kings. And as we see in verses 2:4b-6 the writer uses words like plant, field, earth, herb, sprung up, rain, till the ground, and soil from which man was made. All these terms have an agricultural connotation and expose the fertility symbolism of the passage.

Finally, in the midst of this garden God planted the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And God commanded man not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil or else he will die. The center  is a primordial theme in mythology.14 Here, the narrative describes both trees of life and of good and evil as being in the middle of the garden.15

Popular misconception still associates the forbidden fruit with the apple. There is no mention of an apple tree in the text. The confusion probably stemmed from the similarity between the Latin words malum, evil, and malus, apple. The two terms were apparently confused in the course of history.

Concerned about man’s solitude God decides to give him a helper. The narrative goes on to describe a shift in the normal role of procreation. Ironically, God and man appropriate the function of begetting: God takes the woman out of the man. Then the man called his companion woman because she was taken out of him. This inversion reveals an appropriation of woman’s fecundity and may allude to the strict opposition to the fertility cults associated with the fertility goddesses. Any implicit allusion to a goddess Asherah, has been obliterated from the narrative. The first commandment given by Yahweh is clear: he opposes any other divinity including that of the goddess.16

Deut. 16:21 You shall not plant any tree as an Ashe’rah beside the altar of the lord your God which you shall  make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the lord your God hates.

The first Commandment is explicit and categorical, any worship of or reference to any other god is prohibited. The ethos implemented by the priests through the ages reinforced this belief. The narrative of Genesis implicitly overshadows the fact that the tree is a also symbol of genealogy and a metaphor of Asherah.

The fundamental point to be made about biblical patriarchy is related to the genealogy of the people as a tribal clan. Only with strict ethical laws and prohibitions could men control women’s fertility and their progeny. In addition, these laws legally reinforced the fact that women were a closely supervised property of men who became their controlling agents of fecundity.17

Gen. 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

The above verse of Genesis, which may be a reference to matriarchy, is in plain contradiction with the patriarchal customs of Judaism. According to ancient Jewish customs, it is not the man who leaves his parents but the woman.18


Gen. 3:1  Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'”. But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

the setting…………the tree garden of Eden
the quest…………..knowledge of good and evil
the hero…………… woman
the obstacle……….God’s ban
the mentor…………the serpent
the outcome……….Eve: the mother of all living

In The Fall, the events that describe the beginning of the relationship between the protagonists are doomed at the outset. The narrative depicts the characters entangled in a situation in which the quest for knowledge and the emulation of God are greater than the fear of punishment. The crux of the narrative reveals that the desire to be like God prevails.19 But because of their deliberate disobedience, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden. As a consequence, they will be excluded from God’s presence and property.  In theological terms this exclusion from God’s presence implies the death of Adam and Eve and their progeny, hence mankind. The narrative makes it explicitly clear that the woman is to be held responsible for man’s alienation from his God.

As we have suggested earlier, the garden of Eden is full of fertility symbols. The four rivers that flow in the garden allude to it. The trees bearing the most alluring of fruits denote it. And the presence of the serpent confirms it.

The serpent, a Canaanite symbol of life, health, and fecundity, simply strengthens the fertility theme of the whole narrative. Not to mention that the tree of life is obviously another prominent symbol of genealogy and fertility.20 But the most stunning aspect about these verses is that the tree as well as the serpent are both symbols of Asherah.21 There is even an etymological connection between the Hebrew name Eve, hawwah, and the name Asherah.22 In addition, there is also a similarity between the name hawwah and the Aramaic word hewya’ for serpent.23

Gen. 3:20  The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

The meaning of Eve as the mother of all living is a further allusion to fertility connected to the mother goddess Asherah as the nurse to the gods. Moreover, the explicit consequence of the woman’s disobedience is described as the pains of childbearing emphasizing even further the fertility theme of the narrative.

The serpent is a major protagonist in the creation myths of the ancient Near East where he is a celebrated symbol of wisdom.

Mt. 10:16 So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Many of the oldest Egyptian goddesses were thought of as serpents, mostly as cobras. In fact, the symbol of the serpent preceded the name of most of the goddesses and is the hieroglyphic symbol for the word goddess. The Sumerian goddess Nidaba, the patron deity of writing, was also depicted as a snake, while the Sumerian goddess was referred to as the Great Mother Serpent of Heaven. Furthermore, symbols of numerous goddesses of Old European, Indian, Akkadian, and Babylonian mythologies were also portrayed as serpents. Most of them represented a common symbol of fertility and immortality.24

The presence of the snake among God, Adam, and Eve represents the alien, which from the outset is excluded from God’s design. As such, he is the visible cause of the fall. Furthermore, the narrative correlates the woman to the reptile as both outsiders. They are portrayed as the rebellious prototypes who ignore God’s command.

As the account shows, the serpent offers Eve much more than the knowledge of good and evil; he tells her she could be God’s equal. That suggestion even implies that she would forsake her rank of tiller.

The narrative makes it quite clear that the serpent and the woman are both responsible for man’s alienation from God. It is no coincidence that so early in the biblical texts the writers portray the woman and the serpent as being condemned by God. As we mentioned earlier, both are linked to symbols of pagan cults that are radically opposed by Yahweh.

1 Kings 16:32 He erected an altar for Ba’al in the house of Ba’al, which he built in Samar’ia. And Ahab made an Ashe’rah. Ahab did more to provoke the lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the Kings of Israel who were before him.


Gen. 3:21 And the lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them. Then the lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us , knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”- therefore the lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

As a result of the transgression, the couple’s eyes were opened and they perceived their nakedness.25 Too much emphasis has been placed on the sexual connotation of the narrative. It is rather the theme of fertility and the nature of perception itself that should be more readily stressed. Their eyes are opened to a new condition which is closely tied to the transgression. Especially in the awareness of transition from:

nakedness/nature to clothing/culture26

The narrative explains that the reason why the woman was enticed to eat the fruit in the first place was to be like God. But as they both ate from the fruit they soon realized that God is the sole ruler of the garden and that they, as tillers, are naked and destitute. As a result, Adam and Eve covered themselves with readily accessible leaves while afterward God clothed them with garments made of skins, denoting the property of cattle. The difference in clothing also marks a distinction between:

leaves/nature and skins/domestication

leaves/agriculture and skins/herdsman-ship.

Exodus is also closely tied to the idea of herdsman-ship and grazing. God himself favored sheep herding, a predominantly a tribal occupation, over agriculture which was closely connected with the fertility cults of the goddess which he opposed.

Adam and Eve were living in the garden surrounded by God’s overwhelming dominion. Eve, nevertheless, chose to challenge God’s authority. She refused to be at the center of God’s providential benevolence, preferring independence instead. Perhaps the serpent’s assertion that the eating of the fruit would not bring her death may have convinced her. In fact, the serpent’s assertion turns out to be right as the impending physical death does not materialize. It engendered a metaphysical death as an alienation from God’s presence and providence.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not hard work that is the unfortunate consequence of the fall -man tilled and kept the garden before his expulsion- it is the exclusion of man from God’s realm. It is an exclusion from the presence of the holy.

Finally, God is concerned that the couple might also eat from the tree of life and live forever. To eliminate such a prospect he quickly evicts them. The act of disobedience also brought forth suspicion and distrust, another consequence of the fall. Promptly, God places a cherubim to guard the garden’s entrance. The angel becomes a symbol of man’s alienation from God.27

As the story shows, the cherub’s duty is to guard the boundaries of the sacred and to protect the tree of life located at its center.

Contrary to popular belief, the cherub -or cherubim- is not a cute and chubby winged child flying about the clouds of heavens. Biblical tradition describes the cherub as a sphinx: a four legged animal often depicted with the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the head of a human, frequently with the face of a woman. The cherub was usually carved out of olive wood and plated with gold.28

The symbol of the cherub is part of another sacred Jewish tradition. The sphinx was also present inside the first Temple of Jerusalem.29 Two of these carved creatures were placed side by side with their wings stretched to form the tabernacle. Between their protective custody lay the ark. The ark, which is Israel’s most sacred relic, was a golden box which contained the tablets of the ten commandments, and, according to different sources, also contained a sample of the manna; i.e., the food sent from heaven to sustain the life of the God’s chosen people during the exodus.30

The symbolic cherub is used as a guardian of both sacred places: the garden of Eden and the ark. At the center of the garden are the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. In the midst of the Jerusalem temple, which according to Jewish beliefs is also located at the center of the world, is the ark with the ten commandments and the manna.

Furthermore, the knowledge of good and evil is connected to the law embodied by the ten commandments. One who knows and interprets the law knows the difference between good and evil.  The priesthood who also act as scribes, are the legitimate medium between God and the people to interpret the law. It is surmised that the symbol of the tree in the narrative represents the genealogy of the priesthood describing the way to protect and guard against the intrusion of any alien/profane person among its rank or progenitors.

God’s immediate concern in placing the cherub is stopping Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life. Yet the tree of life is also connected to another content of the ark. Both, the tree of life and the manna, are symbols of a sustenance of mysterious origin.

The cherub is put in both places to protect and guard the garden and the ark from the profane man and woman. Henceforth, only God is permitted to enter the garden, and only the high priest can enter the Holy of Holies. Jewish law forbids anyone but the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies, and whoever does must die.

The symbolic analogy between the garden and the ark is interesting. It shows that J, who wrote the account, was preoccupied with preserving the priestly dominion over the divine law and its interpretation. The texts also suggest that the fall brought forth the separation between the sacred/holy center which God rules and the outside boundaries of the common, the impure and the profane.


1 Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, Chicago, Open Court, 1901.
2 See Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, New York, Summit Books, 1987.
3 The first verse can also be rendered “in the beginning of” which also allows the translation: “When God began to create the heavens and earth”. The Torah, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1962.
4 Yet orthodox interpretation of the significance of the “word” is commonly understood as being an expression of God’s will. See Gerhard von Rad, on the Word of God in “Old Testament Theology”, London, Oliver and Boyd Ltd, 1966.
5 Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, New York, Cornell University Press, 1973, 159 f. Another interesting aspect about ancient Egyptian creation myths is God Khnum’s creative ability as craftsman and procreator compared to the biblical God who molded man from the ground and created woman from man.
6 The noted Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad explains: “This naming is thus both an act of copying and an act of appropriative ordering, by which man intellectually objectifies the creatures for himself. Thus one may say that something is said here about the origin of language, so long as one does not emphasize the discovery of external words but rather that inner appropriation of recognizing and interpreting which happens in language.” in, Genesis, London, SCM Press, 1963, 81.
7 Northrop Frye, The Great Code, Toronto, Academic Press Canada, 1982, XVI.
8 And as we have already mentioned writing and recording were the monopoly of the scribes.
9 Paul Ricoeur has suggested that there is something to be said about the “metaphorical” as being at the origin of logical thought; Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977.
10 As Gerhard von Rad puts it; “let us remind ourselves once more that name-giving in the ancient Orient was primarily an exercise of sovereignty, of command.” in Genesis, Ibid., 81.
11 Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1963.
12 Emile Durkheim, Ibid.
13 See article by David Noel Freedman, Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah, in, Biblical Archeologist, December 1987, 241-249.
14 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper And Row, 1959, 12 ff.
15 The word midst could be translated as the center or middle. The Torah uses the word “bad” instead of evil, which gives a more pragmatic significance, see The Torah, Ibid.
16 Asherah was also known as Athirat, Astarte, which is a dialectical variant. She is also referred to in the Bible as Ashtoreth, Ashteroth, Astoreth, Astaroth, Ashterathite, Anath, Beeshterah, Elath, and Baalath. The title “holy one”, is also believed to be one of her epithets. See Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman, San Diego, A Harvest Book/HBJ Book, 1976, 163-170.
17 Denise L. Carmody, Judaism, in, Women and World Religions, ed. by Arvind Sharma, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987. I cannot help thinking, whenever I come across similar examples, of how men are fascinated and also envious of women’s fertility. It seems that men had to compensate for their sense of inadequacy in this regard by a propensity to dominate religion and mythology, since they are unable to control nature. The powerful God depicted as the male creator figure is just one example.
18 “Curiously, the statement about forsaking father and mother does not quite correspond to the patriarchal family customs of Ancient Israel, for after the marriage the wife breaks loose from her family much more than the man does from his. Does this tendentious statement perhaps preserve something from a time of matriarchal culture?” Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, a Commentary, London, SCM Press, 1963, 83.
19 See the role that desire and vanity play in Rene Girard’s, Mensonge Romantique et Verite Romanesque, Paris, Grasset, 1961.
20 “Thus we can see that there is an association between Asherah and trees or symbols related to trees although the full details of this association are unknown. Since Asherah herself is the great mother-goddess, chief consort of the Canaanite high god El, it stands to reason that the cultic symbols of the goddess could be associated with fertility or the gift of life in some manner.” See Howard N. Wallace’s dissertation, The Eden Narrative, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 114.
21 Howard N. Wallace, Ibid., 163
22 “The possible etymologies for hawwah suggest that the name and the connection with Asherah are part of a long tradition.” Howard N. Wallace, Ibid., 157-158.
23 Howard N. Wallace, Ibid., 148.
24 Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1983, 903-909.
25 Torah, Idid.
26 Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, New York, Harper & Row, 1969.
27 The angel, throughout the Bible, is depicted as God’s messenger; as such, he is depicted as the symbol of an obstacle to the direct communication between God and man.
28 R. E. Friedman, Ibid., 86-87.
29 J, who wrote the account, was from the southern kingdom of Judah where Solomon built the first
Jerusalem temple. A strict Yahwist, J was outraged by the idolatries of King Jeroboam who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. The King had built in the cities of Beth-El and Dan two shrines for the worship of the golden calf associated with the fertility cults of Asherah.
30 Ex. 16:31f.